Adopting a Shelter Dog? Learn the 3-3-3 Rule

Ready to adopt a new best friend? Learn the 3-3-3 Rule to help them adjust to their new home.

Nov 25, 2023byLauren Rey
adopting shelter dog learn the 3 3 3 rule

When bringing any new pet into your home there will be an adjustment period. A time for them to explore their new home, learn new things, and get comfortable. In the world of shelter dogs that often come from a high-stress environment, this process can take a little longer. The 3-3-3 Rule is a set of guidelines to help pet owners prepare for each phase, so you and your new best friend can live happily ever after!

The Plight of the Shelter Dog

shelter dog
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

At any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of dogs awaiting homes in shelters across the United States, totaling over three million dogs annually. Some of these dogs make it into loving homes and some, sadly, do not. If you’re looking to add a new four-legged family member to the mix, consider adopting from a shelter or rescue. Dogs of all breeds, sizes, and ages can be found in shelters and rescues, even puppies and purebreds! You can browse your local shelter or rescue or utilize online resources like Petfinder to find adoptable dogs in your area.

There’s an expression in the shelter world “When you adopt from a shelter, you save two lives — the one you adopted and the one that takes its place” and this couldn’t ring more true! Unfortunately, shelters often reach capacity and can’t take in any new dogs, by adopting, you’re clearing the way for another dog to get a chance at their forever home.

The 3-3-3 Rule

dog coming home
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

The 3-3-3 Rule, also sometimes just called the “rule of threes,” refers to a set of guidelines for new pet owners on how shelter dogs typically adjust to their new homes.

The 3-3-3 Rule for Shelter Dogs

  • 3 days to decompress
  • 3 weeks to learn their new routine
  • 3 months to feel at home

Here’s a detailed look at each phase and what you can do to help your new four-legged friend along the way!

3 Days to Decompress

dog hiding
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

While all dogs (and cats) will go through a decompression period, shelter dogs, in particular, may be coming from a noisy, high-stress environment where they weren’t able to fully relax. Think of how you may feel after a long stressful day at work versus on your day off at home when you are comfortable and relaxed. It’s a similar feeling for dogs!

During the decompression period, your dog may act shy, fearful, nervous, or have an overall sense of “uneasiness” as they explore their new environment. You may even find them trying to hide. Don’t worry if their behavior is not what you expected, it will take them some time to come out of their shell. It’s important to give them plenty of space during this time and be patient with your interactions. Give them a quiet, comfortable space to retreat to, like a separate room or crate, with plenty of comfort items like toys and blankets.

dog curled up
Photo Credit: Rhys Leonard Photography/Canva

Some dogs will sleep a lot during their decompression period as it may be the first time they’ve had a quiet, safe place to do so in a while. They may also not want to eat or drink much during this time. Take them out for short walks to ease them into a routine but nothing too overstimulating like visiting all the neighbors or going to the park. Take it slow and let them ease into exploring new places and meeting new people.

3 Weeks to Learn the Routine

dog waiting for walk
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

Over the next three weeks, your new dog will begin exploring their environment, showing more personality, and learning their new routine. Likely, they’ll start anticipating when it’s time for a walk, what time meals are served, and have a basic idea of the household dynamics.

During this time, it’s important to keep to a routine as much as possible and slowly introduce them to new things, using treats and positive reinforcement along the way. Be sure to pay attention to your dog’s body language and social cues to gauge their comfort level. If your dog seems overwhelmed or fearful, give them some space. While it can be exciting to watch your dog start to come out of their shell, you don’t want to rush the process.

Towards the end of the first few weeks, as you and your new dog become more acquainted and your dog becomes more comfortable, it’s a good time to start some basic training. Nothing too overwhelming, this is not the time to teach complex tricks, but rather the basics — sit, stay, come, etc. Just remember to go slow, use lots of treats, and be patient with your dog.

3 Months to Feel at Home

dog happy at home
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

By the three-month mark, it’s likely your dog now understands that this is their forever home. They’ll hopefully be much more relaxed and comfortable around the house, confident on walks, and will have built some trust with their owners.

It’s important to continue with training during this time and remain consistent. While your dog is getting more comfortable, they are still learning. If you stop using training cues or rewarding your dog for good behaviors, they may interpret that as you don’t want them to do those things anymore. This is also the time when undesirable behaviors may begin to surface so keep a close eye on your dog for any areas, they may need help with.

If you notice your dog is having trouble with training or starting to display any concerning behaviors like separation anxiety, reactivity, or aggression, seek professional help through a behaviorist or trainer. The earlier the better!

Happily Ever After

happy dog with owner
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Canva

From here on out, you and your dog should be on your way to “happily ever after.” Remember to stay consistent with your dog’s training, get them in for routine veterinary checks, and enjoy spending time with your new best friend!

While the 3-3-3 Rule is a great set of guidelines, it’s also important to remember that dogs are individuals. Some may adjust much quicker and some will need more time. If your dog’s journey looks a bit different — that’s ok! Be patient, let them take all the time they need to adjust, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help when needed.

Lauren Rey
byLauren Rey

A lover of all animals, Lauren’s background is in the veterinary world, but she is now a content writer on travel, wildlife, and all things pets! She’s based in Florida, but when not writing, she’s usually plotting out a new road trip route with her partner-in-crime. Pickles is a mixed-breed rescue dog that loves hiking, road trips, and Starbucks just as much as her mom does!